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UND says grad rates not a complete picture

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GRAND FORKS -- Graduation rates have been at the center of discussions of how to improve the quality of North Dakota's colleges and universities. But the numbers are not necessarily simple indicators of institutions' success, according to University of North Dakota faculty and administrators.

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One national report states that 54 percent of UND students graduate within six years compared to 70 percent at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

The information used to create such rates is widely used by college administrators to compare institutions, notably this year by North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, who was accused of making college presidents "look bad" by comparing the relatively low rates at those schools to others. But the information is not comprehensive and can be misleading, say UND faculty and staff.

Comparing UND with the University of Minnesota is "not a particularly fair" assessment because the average student's background is not uniformly similar, said Cullen Goenner, a UND associate professor of economics who has researched college completion rates.

"You have to look at the quality of the students, you have to look at the resources of the institution and the financial assistance" at that institution, he said. "When you start to account for all of those differences, you see this big discrepancy in graduation rates."

IPEDS

One of the main resources for college completion rates and other student information is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, IPEDS, offered through the National Center for Education Statistics. Another is the nonprofit education organization National Student Clearinghouse.

IPEDS conducts annual surveys with more than 7,500 institutions that participate in federal student financial aid programs, covering information such as test scores. Shirvani and other institutions within the University System also rely on IPEDS information, as does U.S. News and World Report, which creates well-known annual rankings of colleges nationwide based on tuition, student life and other factors.

According to IPEDS, 54 percent of full-time, first-time UND students graduated within six years in 2011 with a bachelor's degree versus 70 percent at the University of Minnesota.

That statistic isn't bad in and of itself, but when people hear the discrepancy, they might think UND is worse, Goenner said.

"But I've told people for a long time, part of our admission strategy at least in North Dakota is to give people a chance to come here and improve themselves," he said.

Also, the completion rates track only a specific type of student -- ones who are first-time, full-time freshmen in the fall semester. This excludes freshmen who start in spring semester, transfer students and international students who transferred from an institution in a different country, said Suzanne Anderson, university registrar.

The report also doesn't acknowledge students who work while they attend school, which can delay their graduation, or their academic workload. Most majors at UND require 125 credits to graduate, which take more than four years to complete if a student takes 12 per semester, the minimum for a student to be considered full time. Engineering programs require anywhere from 129 to 137 credits to complete, and if students take an internship, they receive a different credit amount, she said.

"Although people get very concerned about a four-year graduation rate, that's why the U.S. Department of Education has us report a six-year rate," she said. "They considered six a success because of all the variables."

National Student Clearinghouse

National Student Clearinghouse draws from 1.9 million students who provide information to institutions.

The organization generates several annual reports, but the one on college completion covers students classified as degree-seeking, first-time freshmen, similar to IPEDS. However, this report breaks information down according to the state where the student began school, age and the type of institution attended.

Unlike IPEDS, the organization closely tracks transfer students, gathering information "several times per term" from students. In a report released in February, it found that 20 percent of students who started last year at four-year public institutions in North Dakota and received a degree ended up graduating in a different state, compared to 6 percent nationally.

Students in the region tend to transfer at a higher rate, too, compared to students nationwide. The report found that more than 5 percent of students in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin who started at four-year public institutions received their first degree at a two-year institution compared to 3.2 percent nationwide.

Each organization has different goals with its research. The National Student Clearinghouse tries to help educational institutions improve in areas such as efficiency and workload, and also collects data to help improve student outcomes and educational policy, according to the organization.

IPEDS says it collects information needed to describe and analyze trends in postsecondary education and provides basic information on institutions.

'Grain of salt'

College graduation rates should be "taken with a grain of salt" when considering the quality of an institution, as other factors may be more important to a student, said Carmen Williams, director of UND's Office of Institutional Research.

Although National Clearinghouse data may offer a more nuanced view, not all colleges participate in the Voluntary System of Accountability's College Portrait, an online resource that uses Clearinghouse information and is available on UND's website. This makes it difficult for institutions to do peer comparisons, but offers good basic information on individual institutions, Williams said.

"Certainly, retention rates are important," but it's not the only important criteria for students to consider, she said.

Goenner said several factors can affect how long it takes a student to graduate. One study of his covered the completion rates of a sample of 258 research universities, including UND and North Dakota State University.

Student-faculty ratios, individual university goals, the location of a college and the percentage of faculty who work full time all play a role in explaining graduation rates, he wrote in the 2004 research paper.

Universities considered comparable to UND in terms of mission, enrollment and program areas include State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee.

As local students consider where they should continue their education, Goenner said he thinks that citizens and educators need to consider what UND and NDSU should strive to be.

"If we're going to try to be held to standards at the University of Minnesota, we're going to need to have similar quality students and similar quality resources," he said. "I think it's easy for people to say, 'Well, we should be like them,' but it takes a lot of resources."

UND Provost Thomas DiLorenzo did not comment on this story.

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